By Mohannad W. Kafri
Street food has been booming in Ramallah in recent years. Street food is not just food; it is a social experience that represents a simplicity that does not require large fancy spaces because it can be sold on a cart or in a booth. Street food is anything that you can grab and eat on the go without needing to sit at a table. It offers great opportunities as a small business start-up and a dignified way of making an income for young people who are passionate about food. It fosters societal integration. Vendors of street food are full of life, passionate about what they do, and willing to engage in any conversation that involves politics, sports, or anything in life. From falafel to shawarma, boiled corn or legumes, coffee, tea, and fruit smoothies, Ramallah’s street food is interesting for food lovers. In this article, I will take you through some of the main street foods that I enjoy and consider part of my city’s personality and of my physiological makeup as well.
Corn food carts created an addiction for me. They come with flashy names that represent the flamboyant personalities of their vendors. Some have special names to suggest that they are Michelin-star restaurant equivalents, such as Sweet Corn, King Corn, and Top Corn. Others carry the city name to suggest that they are the only legit corn carts in town, such as Ramallah Corn, and others feature their owner’s name, such Ibrahim Corn and Raed Corn. When you decide to start your corn addiction by stopping to grab a corn cup, you can engage in conversation on any topic with the vendor. My favorite of all carts is Ibrahim Corn, formerly known as Chavez Corn. Ibrahim, the owner, explained to me that he called his cart Chavez Corn due to the Venezuelan president’s great support of the Palestinian cause. Currently, it is called Ibrahim Corn because when his cart was being renovated and a new sign created, he was away and wasn’t able to check on it, so his name rather than that of Chavez ended up on the sign. He hopes to fix it someday, but for now it would cost too much. The corn these vendors offer is not your regular corn on the cob; it consists of loose, boiled corn kernels served in a cup, to be consumed with a spoon after the vendor mixes it with cheese powder, plant-based butter, spices, and salt. It is cooked in a regular kitchen pot, which is kept at a constant high temperature, and prepared with the skill and smoothness of the competitors you see on the famous Master Chef show. Once the corn is presented to you, the vendor will suggest adding lemon to suit your taste, or mayonnaise. The snack offers your senses a unique, stimulating, and flavorful experience. The sweet yet salty corn mixed with the buttery taste of the plant-based fat, the mild taste of the powdered cheese, and topped up with spices and lemon juice creates a feast that brings the Rio Carnival all the way to Ramallah. It’s a warm snack enjoyed by young and old that will lift your spirits, especially on cold winter days. Regardless of which cart you get your corn from, I promise that you will enjoy this snack. And if you like a little conversation, you will find these vendors all smiles despite their difficult economic circumstances. Small, medium, and large cups cost between 1 and 3 dollars. The corn is delicious, and I recommend you try it, but there are other snacks you should try, too.
If you walk to work, it is important to start your day with a caffeine injection. This can only be achieved by drinking strong Arabic coffee from a coffee cart. You can get six cups of strong, aromatic Arabic coffee from one of the coffee carts for the price of one cup of coffee from the coffee shops in the Beverly Hills district of Ramallah known as Al-Tira. Sure, they are not Segafredo, Lavazza, Gloria Jean’s, Illy, etc., but any true coffee enthusiast knows that the source of the coffee beans is what matters, and when cardamom is added to Arabic coffee, you will not even think of the corporate coffee world. When you taste a cup of Arabic coffee from one of these vendors, the beans give you a free ticket with a rare no-visa-needed entry on your Palestinian passport, taking you straight to the beans’ sources, whether it is the Caribbean, Africa, or Central or South America, given that these regions cultivate some of the finest Arabica coffee beans. Further, there is personality in that cup. The vendor adds the measures of coffee and then adds water and waits for it to boil, all in front of your eyes. You can ask him to make it with no sugar, medium sugar, or extra sugar. On top of that, vendors usually have croissants made from a local bakery that you can have with your cup of coffee, all for less than two dollars.
Since we are in the bakery section, we have to mention nawaem, which literally translated means “softies.” So what are softies? They certainly are not for softies because once you eat one, you will want to eat three or four more to satisfy your brain’s sugar needs, especially in the morning with your coffee. “Softies” are balls of bread that are the size of a tennis ball, may contain anise seeds, and are topped with sugar. Very popular in Ramallah, nawaem are the donuts of Palestine. However, to date, I have not noticed a Palestinian policeman waiting in his car to bust an illegal gathering of folks eating their nawaem and sipping on their coffee. In any case, softies are worth trying! First, because they are addictive; second, because they are light and not energy dense, so you will eat more till they are not light anymore; and finally, because you can have two for one shekel or one for one shekel if it is of a larger size.
Another famous bakery product is ka’ek b-simsim (sesame seed bread), also called ka’ek al-Quds. It’s sold on carts, and you can buy it together with a large falafel, soft processed cheese, an oven-roasted egg (similar to a boiled egg), and/or a za’atar (thyme) mix that can be added later. They are a family favorite. I rarely buy them on my way to work, though, as I prefer to get them on weekends, hot from the bakeries that supply the portable carts. When they are on carts, fresh and hot from the bakery, they sell quickly. It’s better for me to get them on weekends to enjoy them with my family. Since we are talking about weekends, I must admit that I don’t usually eat falafel (deep-fried patties made of minced chickpeas or fava beans) on a daily basis, even though it can’t get more Palestinian than that. Just like hummus, falafel is a heavy meal by itself, and when you make a falafel sandwich, you must add hummus, red cabbage, pickles, tomatoes, and hot peppers (I prefer it hot) to make it a whole meal that can keep you satiated for the next four hours. Furthermore, one does not suffice for me, so I have two, which simply tires me out and, instead of hitting the books or the gym, I’d rather hit the bed.
If you are a health enthusiast and want to nourish your body with lighter fare, there are small shops or booths that offer freshly squeezed juices and smoothies. You can get orange, pomegranate, sugarcane, beetroot, and many other juices. You can choose from a variety of delicious toppings for your smoothie if you are thinking of going to the gym afterwards and want a high-energy snack. You can add honey and nuts, for example, which are known as “groom’s mix” not only for their high energy content but also as a reminder that the survival of the human race depends on how many babies are made; but it is not Viagra. The groom’s mix drink is certainly energy dense and will increase your stamina for exercise, work, etc., but it is given this name to suggest how important it is in Palestinian and Arab society to have kids and start a family as soon as you get married. If you want to continue good health habits, boiled legumes such fava beans, chickpeas, and turmos (lupine beans) can be another addition to your smoothie to complete your protein needs. Boiled legumes were our childhood snacks, as the vendor used to sell them in the school yard when we left to go home at the end of the day. Loaded with protein and fiber, they are sold in small nylon bags and seasoned individually by the vendor according to the taste of each customer. These snacks will certainly keep you warm on winter days. You can also get corncobs from the same vendor.
Ramallah street food has been booming with the rise of food vans that sell the same line of foods discussed earlier. Caravans are a little more high end. The coffees they sell are diverse, such as espresso, cappuccino, latte, iced coffee, and more. The coffee is made using machines you’d find in any café. I usually stop by early to get coffee from “Rumi,” my favorite coffee caravan, on my way to work or to get a caffeine shot before training; caffeine and exercise are a different topic, though. Other possibilities include potato chip caravans, hot dog caravans, and many other types of fast food. I have only tried the hot dog caravan once, since I am not into Western fast food, but it’s proving to be popular since these caravans can be found in neighborhoods, on lively commuter roads, and in town, making them an ideal option for working parents who sometimes do not have time to cook a meal for their hungry children.
Regardless whether it’s sold from a cart, booth, or van, street food offers great variety. I consider street food a must when I go downtown to do some errands. It gives you a sense of belonging to the place. Furthermore, when you get street food you are contributing somewhat to the economic and social stability of vendors and this is very important for the resilience of the Palestinian people in their struggle for self-determination. So next time you buy street food, remember it is more than just food.